Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Humans Value

It is an unquestionable fact that we human beings value things more when we have sought them. A man who spends his entire life in the pursuit of greater riches and security will value it more than his grandson, who has no reason not to squander the old money passed down to him. A man who has had to work to find a job will be more appreciative of the job when he finally gets it, than the man who finds a plumb position dropped right into his lap. And the sensation of finally grasping a difficult proof in philosophy or in math is a wondrous one that will never be experienced by the rare geniuses who understand such things at first reading. (To be sure, genius has its own consolations; but that is another matter.)

Yet there is one area in which we prefer—nay, practically demand—that a thing come freely, or it is of no value to us. Once could even go so far as to say, that unless it is given freely, the thing cannot be given. That thing is love.

I speak as a woman here, but I suspect that for men also affection and friendship are more valued when they come freely. We all believe, or wish to believe, or at least wish others to believe, that we are lovable; to have to seek the friendship or affection of one whom we respect or love ourselves is often a terrible blow. With romantic love there is some difference. The woman hopes—rather, desires most ardently—to be loved without having to exert herself towards making herself loved. This is not laziness on her part; she will be glad enough to do everything for the man who does love her—really love her—but for her there is something unreal about a love which she must engineer. The “tricks and stratagems” which must sometimes be resorted to are of course resorted to—but really, the woman had much rather not resort to them. For men I suppose there must be a feeling that is in some ways opposite to this. Any difficulties they meet with, though they may not welcome them as they come, will make the love they win in the end sweeter to them. Even in such a case, however, I cannot but think that the man must want the woman in the end to love him freely. As with the woman, this desire comes from the desire innate in all of us to be lovable. Love must be free, or we are not worth loving. Love must be a gift.

The other half of love—the love that we give, and not the love we get—is the same matter in reverse. We love someone because they are loveable. We “cannot help” loving certain people. Yet here the love can be of two kinds. We can love the person because they are in some way good to us—because they have loved us themselves, or have helped us in some way: because loving them gratifies our ego, just as we love ice cream for gratifying the palate. But we can also love them because they are loveable in and of themselves, and would still be so whether or not they ever knew us. If I die tomorrow, the Titian on my wall will do me no more good; I am not even sure it did me much good while I lived, though it gave me a certain amount of pleasure to look at it now and then. But I would be even sorrier to die if I knew that the Titian died with me. Likewise with the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s seventh, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, and the girl with the long braids whom I saw once, and only once, at the grocery store. I may never see the braids again, but I would make them immortal if I could. Surely this is the proper kind of love, love most of all, if by love we mean something wholly unselfish and in the best sense impersonal. It has in the end no reference either to the person who feels the love or to the person or thing which possesses the loveable quality. They may never even come into contact. (Alas, the Titian and I are hopelessly separated by circumstances beyond my control!)

Yet what if it were possible that the loveable should be, not merely in some person but be itself a person? It would require that the person be not only beautiful and therefore lovable, but also in love; for that is one of the most beautiful things of all. The great question, of course, is whether this loveable should be in love with us or not. If we have correctly defined the loveable, there seems to be no reason why it should be, nor should we necessarily feel more love for it if it were. We might almost say that if the loveable loved us, we would be inclined to despise its taste; we are most of us, after all, not very well worth loving. But what if the loveable loved us not because it thought we deserved it, but because its being so inclined it? What if it loved us because it was love? If we met with such a thing, what would we do with it? How could we understand it?

I have been puzzled for some time by the atheist’s old question: “If God exists, why does he make it so hard for us to find him? Why isn’t it easier to prove his existence?” The only possible answer for the theist is that God must in some way value our faith and our attempts to come to understand Him intellectually. But why should He value them? We know they cannot be good for Him, in the sense of being useful to Him or pleasing to Him; it can only be that they are good for us. It must be good for us to have pursued God, individually and through the ages, and to find Him nowhere, or to find only the most doubtful traces of Him in the remotest corners of the universe. And it must be good for us that, in the fullness of time, He came and still comes, not in the fullness of His glory, but as a still small voice and in the shape of a little child.

There was once one who sought the length and breadth of the earth for another who could return her love. When she had sought long years she gave up at last in despair, as all those who so sought have done. But at length, at last, long after her hope had been given up and resignation set in, she found herself looked for in turn, wooed and loved by one who surpassed all her brightest and most foolish hopes. Now she was, as I say, a fool; but she was not so much a fool as to reject her lover. Yet by how much was her happiness greater in accepting him than it would have been had she not first sought and failed to discover him in all the four corners of the earth?

Crazy story, you say. Never happened. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. Forget about religion being man’s search for God. Once, two thousand years ago, at midnight in Bethlehem, in piercing cold, God came in search of Man, and Man and God in one Person were found.

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